Spike TV is doing something rather daring.
The company has broadcast deals with both Bellator MMA—mixed martial arts' second most significant promotion—and GLORY World Series—the premier kickboxing organization in the game. In a nod to the Japanese tradition of Dynamite!!, a joint MMA and kickboxing show hosted by PRIDE FC and K-1, Spike's event this weekend will be a dual event with bouts from both sports.
The logistics will be trickier as, unlike PRIDE FC, Bellator does not use a ring for its MMA bouts. And the stars aren't as well known. But I can say without hint of a lie that I am genuinely excited for this card. Just as excited as I haven't been for a card in quite a long time. It's innovative, it's fresh, and it's stacked with quality fights and fighters. Men I know and understand, in matchups that I can speculate over and enjoy.
I've given Bellator a bit of a kicking in my past columns because of their freak show matchmaking and their use of washed up stars to build cards headlined by irrelevant bouts. But that's my job, to dump on terrible fights. If I take off my critic hat—with all of its concern for the well-being of fighters, the quality of products, and the relevance of matchmaking—and put on my promoter hat, I have to admit that they are absolutely doing the right thing. You can have all the young talent in the world, but if you aren't the UFC people aren't going to fill your shows on a drunken night out in Vegas just because (not least because Bellator never run shows in Vegas), you have to find a way to get people in the door.
Obviously Kimbo Slice versus Ken Shamrock was an aberration from the moment it was signed until the moment it dragged its carcass over the finishing line. Tito Ortiz versus Stephan Bonnar was like watching masters tennis, with none of the entertainment or craft. And slinging the middleweight champion, Alexander Schlemenko, in with a gigantic, irrelevant light heavyweight, the aforementioned Ortiz, was both abusive matchmaking and stupid business as it killed off any hype the exciting middleweight kickboxer had going. But the names still grabbed attention, and even the experienced fight fan tuned in for the obvious train wreck that would follow—and was tricked, entirely pleasantly, into enjoying some excellent action elsewhere on the card.
The bout between Tito Ortiz and Liam McGeary which headlines Bellator Dynamite is built along the same principles, but stands out as something better. Firstly, Ortiz is on his first two fight winning streak over fighters not named Ken Shamrock since 2006, so maybe there's something to his talk of being reinvigorated and uninjured. But more importantly, this isn't a bout put together with the hope that viewers might watch the fights before it and see new talent. Ortiz is in with Liam McGeary—the epitome of young blood.
McGeary came to Bellator with just three professional bouts under his belt and he has come on in leaps and bounds. Now 10-0, McGeary's last victory was a convincing but entertainingly competitive five round decision over Emanuel Newton for the Bellator Light Heavyweight Title. That was the first time McGeary ever went the distance, and Newton spent huge portions of the fight escaping submission attempts from the ultra-active McGeary.
What are you watching McGeary for? Well, the moment he gets put on his back, he's throwing up armbars and triangles. Whenever he's got his legs locked around something, he'll start working a double attack with his arms on something else. And he's one of those annoying guys who doesn't play for position when he's in a bad spot—if you have him in side control, he'll try to shove your head down and catch a reverse triangle, or fight off the cross facing arm and try to Americana it.
And he's so aggressive that it works! Emanuel Newton, who I considered the sleeper light heavyweight in MMA, was on defense from the first moment he took McGeary down. It was really something to watch.
Here's the thing though, Ortiz might be obsessed with showing everyone how great his stand up is but his grappling chops are legit. A veteran of the early ADCC submission grappling tournaments, and famously difficult to submit, the first time Ortiz showed us a bit of guard work in the UFC, he damn near choked out Lyoto Machida with a triangle choke while still winded from an intercepting knee.
Everyone expects McGeary to easily submit Ortiz—and that would be amazing for McGeary's career, but if Ortiz ends up in a pure grappling match he might surprise some fans with his savvy. It seems like a showcase fight for McGeary, but if Ortiz can survive to the final bell it'll be a convincing case for the late career resurgence in ability that he feels he's having.
Glory Main Event: Zack Mwekassa versus Saulo Cavalari
The main event of the kickboxing portion of the card is a rematch between Zack Mwekassa and Saulo Cavalari. This time, however, the bout is for the Glory light heavyweight strap. Zack Mwekassa didn't seem like much when he knocked out Pat Barry on the latter's return to kickboxing, but the more I see of The Black Warrior, the more I salivate at the match ups Glory can make with him.
What makes Mwekassa special—and I wrote an entire article on this last week if you missed it—is his application of pure boxing in kickboxing. The changes made to the stance (for checking low kicks) and the limiting of head movement (for fear of eating a knee or kick) make the punching in kickboxing an upright, volume game. Hence the classical Dutch of punch, punch, punch, low kick. What Mwekassa has found is that the squared up, upright stance needed for kickboxing creates a huge target for the classical boxing jab—long and stepping deep—but by picking his shots he is able to mitigate the threat of the low kick which has undone every other boxer who has tried to ply his trade in the kickboxing ring.
What Saulo Cavalari was able to do in their last bout was keep moving away from the punching range of the Congolese banger, and hacking away at his legs after every punch thrown. With Mwekassa clutching his own leg each time he ate a low kick by the end of the second round, Cavalari started the third with that classic combination of right low kick, left high kick and put The Black Warrior down for the count.
Along with fellow Bellator Dynamite participant, Paul Daley, Mwekassa has one of the finest left hands you will see in a kicking environment. With Mwekassa's aggression and need to get the damage done before he takes too many kicks, this isn't one to miss.
The Light Heavyweight Tournament: Mr. Wonderful
But those fights are just leaves in my Big Mac. The meat of the Bellator Dynamite card is in the four man light heavyweight tournament. The participants of which are some of the most exciting to come up in the sport right now. But there is an interloper present. Phil Davis is performing his own N.W.O. invasion and will give us an excellent measure of the worth of some of these upcoming light heavyweights.
In the UFC the light heavyweight division has pretty much turned into a grey blur. There are no new faces, Alexander Gustafsson doesn't deserve his title shot, no-one seems interested in Ryan Bader getting the chance he deserves, and as much as we all love the current champion, Daniel Cormier, most consider him a place holder for the absent Jon Jones. While Phil Davis never rounded out his game, his tremendous wrestling and decent kicks made him a solid top ten fighter. Should anyone beat him in this tournament, we will have some amazing hypothetical match ups to consider, and UFC purists might sit up and take notice.
What I love about this tournament (aside from it being a one-nighter, where famously anything can happen) is that no man is a mystery. Every single one has his flaws, has suffered his knocks, and is fighting for redemption.
The aforementioned Phil Davis left the UFC at the end of his contract in part due to the new Reebok deal, and in part due to having a second run for the title halted by a disappointing loss to Ryan Bader. Davis' worst performances in the UFC, by far, came when he couldn't outwrestle his opponents. Particularly against Anthony Johnson, once Davis couldn't get Johnson down he had no clue what to do. He stood six away from Johnson and threw up high kicks, before dodging out of the way as Johnson threw headache-makers at him. For Davis, a loss in what is perceived to be a lesser division could spell the end of his days as one of the elite.
The Hardcore Kid
Davis' opponent in the opening round of the tournament is Emanuel Newton, 'The Big Homie'. If you've followed Bellator for a while, Newton is either one of your favourites or someone you can't stand watching because he fights in such an odd fashion. He will often employ a crossing of the feet—in the manner that everyone knows a fighter shouldn't—only to spin around and land a backfist. A backfist off of a missed punch laid out Muhuammad Lawal in their first bout:
And in his recent bout with Joey Beltran, Newton was leaned on along the fence for much of the fight, but each time he broke free he would perform a cross step out. This is a technique Jersey Joe Walcott used to use combined with a backhanded right jab (because there's not a lot you can do with your feet cross in boxing), but Robert Fitzsimmons, the third heavyweight champion of the world, advocated performing a cross step in order to set up a 'pivot blow' just as Newton did.
Add to that his tendency to step mid combination, his surprisingly effective slowball jab, and his tendency to throw wheel kicks like an old man at Taekwondo class, and you've got one of the stranger characters in the cage.
Newton lost his Bellator light heavyweight strap to Liam McGeary in his last bout, but up to that point was riding an impressive seven fight winning streak—which would be a fourteen fight winning streak had his split decision loss to Atilla Veigh in 2012 gone the other way. As weird as he is, he has all the fundamentals a fighter needs too. In his second bout with 'King Mo' Lawal, Newton was able to stay off the floor admirably against the much more accomplished wrestler. The problem which we see in Newton is that he is too happy to take time off in bouts. When McGeary put the pace on him from underneath he was exhausted, but furthermore, in his gimme against Joey Beltran, he was happy to sit back and let Beltran grind him against the cage for a round and a half just to land the one good backfist.
To make a one night tournament in the U.S., certain sacrifices have to be made. Each fighter's first match will only be two five minute rounds. That is not the kind of timescale that is favourable to a slow fighter or one who gets leaned on a lot. If the rounds are scored one a piece, the bout is called a draw and the judges will decide which fighter did more. That fighter will then advance to the finals which will be three rounds. Now folks who remember the Yamma Pit Fighting tournament a few years back will remember that the reduced length of the early bouts made it very easy for the wrestlers in the tournament to shoot, hold, and takedown or no takedown, pick up a tedious decision. Should Davis want to do that, it's hard to see Newton coming up with many definitive answers inside of ten minutes. It's especially hard to see Newton convincingly win two rounds if he goes to the fence as readily as he has done in the past.
In the other light heavyweight semi-final, Linton Vassell takes on Muhammad Lawal. Vassell's sole loss in the last five years was in a title fight with Emanuel Newton. A fight in which, for the first two rounds, Vassell had Newton in a whole heap of trouble. Back control with the body triangle, an extended figure four armbar from the mount. Vassell looked for a while like he was an inch or two from the title. Newton rebounded to take the third and fourth, submitting a tired Vassell in the fifth round.
Vassell has had just one fight since, a bout with Sokoudjou, whom he climbed all over, easily got the back of on several occasions, and eventually flattened out and pounded to a TKO from the back.
With slick transitions and constant threats on opponents backs, as well as solid ground and pound, one has to think that the two round bout is a positive for Vassell. No questions on his cardio, and an opponent in King Mo who will simply be alternating right hands and diving in after takedowns, the openings for back takes will be forthcoming even if Vassell is unlikely to get King Mo to the mat on his own terms.
The final competitor in the tournament is Bellator's fallen star, Muhammad Lawal. 'King Mo'. Mo is the perfect example of a superstar steered on the wrong course. A 2007 silver medalist in the world cup, and with a host of other accolades in wrestling, Mo is one of the most accomplished wrestlers to ever enter the sport of MMA. He was fed up in a few brutally mismatched squashes against men like Mark Kerr, but surprised many in his competitive (if controversial) decision victory over Gegard Mousasi who was a significant step up in competition.
Tremendous wrestling, solid submission defence, and a flare and fascination for boxing technique combined with natural knockout power, King Mo has all the ingredients to be the baddest man on the planet. But somewhere along the way it all came off the rails. In 2010, Mo lost the Strikeforce title to the middling Rafael Cavalcante as he gassed out on failed takedowns and swung wild on the feet. Two and a half years later, and after a nine month drug suspension, Lawal returned to MMA. Getting to the semi-final of the 2013 Bellator tournament before getting knocked out by that Emanuel Newton backfist. Since then it's been KO wins over fighters of Seth Petruzeli's caliber, a dropped decision to Quinton Jackson, and a strange trip to heavyweight to take a split decision over the famously wrestling adverse Cheick Kongo.
Were Lawal to win the tournament, and get a shot at McGeary's light heavyweight title, he certainly has the tools to beat the young Brit. Having never been submitted, and being one of the few people in the world with the power and ability to starch fighters from inside the guard, a Lawal—McGeary match up might be a dream for the American wrestler. Winning that Bellator title in a field of such stiff competition would be a case of realized potential for Lawal, but getting there is the hard part.
When I wrote that this stacked card was daring, I was referring to the significant chance that this all goes wildly off course. The two round fights in the semi-finals could turn into two rounds of hugging to pick up an easy win. A draw in either semi-final could end up with the man who did less in the fans eyes going through. An injury could take out any competitor, as they did in almost every PRIDE or DREAM tournament, and then we're left with a reserve in the final. There's just a whole lot that could go wrong.
But it's brave, and it's innovative, and it's free. Neither Bellator nor Glory have been allowed to make the mistake of making this a pay-per-view and wasting all of their top fighters on a card that no-one will see, as Glory famously did with the awesome, but almost entirely unwatched Last Man Standing. With Spike promoting incredible cards like this on free TV, the UFC's Fox programming has a real fight on its hands.